30 May 2005

A strong sense of time and place

Hillside School (photo: Daniella Thompson, 2004)

At BAHA’s annual membership meeting, State Historic Preservation Officer Milford Wayne Donaldson addressed a capacity audience on the subject of historic districts. Quoting Aristotle, he reminded us that “men come together in cities; they remain together in order to live the good life.”

Donaldson traced the beginnings of the preservation movement to the 19th century, citing the 1853 preservation of Mount Vernon by Ann Pamela Cunningham and a group of dedicated women as the first step that launched the movement. He told us that from an initial focus on period rooms and single house museums, the preservation movement has grown to encompass complexes of buildings, ranging from the outdoor museums of Colonial Williamsburg to historic districts in cities and towns across the land.

The concept of preservation was broadened to encompass neighborhoods in 1931, when the city council of Charleston, SC, zoned a neighborhood known as the Battery as an “old and historic district,” said the SHPO. This action changed the path of historic preservation, taking it into the realm of professional planning, while considering buildings of less than national significance as worthy of attention.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 included the word “district” among the types of resources the Secretary of the Interior was to list in the National Register of Historic Places. So from the beginning, districts have been an integral part of the National Register program.

A district is defined by the National Register as possessing a significant concentration, linkage, or continuity of sites, buildings, structures, or objects united historically or aesthetically by plan or physical development. A district is a visually cohesive and contiguous grouping of resources that have a common architectural identity and a shared history. Collectively, the grouping conveys a strong sense of past time and place.

“It is the sense of time and place that Berkeley needs to recognize. You are not Orange County,” said Donaldson, drawing applause.

He added that California, like most of the western states, tends to have problems with the creation of historic districts. Quoting James Marston Fitch’s statement “In historic districts [...] the stylistic parameters are visually evident for all to see. Thus, conformity is easier to judge and enforce,” Donaldson noted: “Not so in Berkeley. In the case of our architecturally eclectic streetscapes, judgements as to what is ‘beautiful’ or ‘appropriate’ are subjective opinions.”

Since Berkeley is a Certified Local Government with its Landmarks Preservation Commission and an advocacy group such as BAHA, controversy as to the appropriate design and preservation of the visual integrity becomes heightened. It is easier when dealing with Charleston, New Orleans, or Society Hill in Philadelphia, where the design is more or less in the same idiom, and architectural style is evident.

But the fact seems to be that historic designation review and, more importantly, embracing the local advocacy group, has worked well. In city after city—in Boston’s Quincy Market area; New York’s SOHO; San Francisco’s Waterfront; San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter; San Antonio’s River Walk district—designation works. If anything, these places may suffer from too much success from a Berkeley perspective, since cultural tourism can overwhelm the neighborhoods.

In the last analysis, the major benefits of design control in a historic district are urbanistic rather than architectural. As long as the City of Berkeley views such controls through the special perspective of architect or developer, as with most redevelopment projects, historic district designation and design review may appear to impose onerous restrictions on their freedom of action. But if the city looks at the issue from the broader point of view of the citizens of Berkeley, who may live and work in these newly designated districts, the whole matter takes on another light. In fact, the high rents, minuscule vacancy ratios, and soaring property values to be found in these controlled areas suggest that historic districs preserve the quality of life and a sense of place. It is not so much a question of preferring “Georgian” at Annapolis, Creole at New Orleans, Spanish Colonial at Monterey; it is rather the sense of blessed relief that such controlled environments give the citizen a chance to be uniquely identified and escape from the visual and sonic chaos of the typical, uncontrolled American streetscape. You throw in the social drama of Berkeley, and you have a very special place.

Surprisingly, there has been very little district nomination activity in Berkeley. The Berkeley Civic Center was listed in the National Register in 1998. Panoramic Hill was approved by the State Historic Resources Commission in February and is currently being reviewed by the National Park Service. The historic core of the University of California’s Berkeley campus is listed as California Landmark No. 946. But there must be many neighborhoods in Berkeley that would qualify for the listing. The Greenwood Common area is an excellent example of mid-20th century modernism and would certainly qualify in the area of architecture, as would any of the neighborhoods with good concentrations of Arts & Crafts and Period Revival. Districts would not necessarily need to have been designed by signature architects, nor would they need to represent one style of architecture. Collections of older commercial buildings might qualify in the area of commercial development.

Another trend is toward the creation of Neighborhood Conservation Districts. These offer community-based solutions aimed at protecting an area’s distinctive character and may receive funding from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Critical Issues Fund. Although these neighborhoods may not merit designation as a historic district, they warrant special land-use attention owing to their distinctive character and importance as viable contributing areas to the community at large. Thirty U.S. cities have Neighborhood Conservation Districts.

The California Main Street program relies on the creation of historic districts as partners to help solve the inner-city problems of crime, drug sales, prostitution, poverty, physical deterioration, property abandonment, and demolition. Phase development and implementation of neighborhood development, affordable housing, and the creation of historic districts and preservation programs are the key to revitalization. It is absolutely pramount that the planning process include not only the traditional partners but the interest, generosity, and flexibility of a local group like BAHA.

Another trend toward the creation of historic districts to prevent loss of place is well illustrated by Pasadena and the construction of the Long Beach Freeway. Since 1973 and the planning of this right-of-way, five historic districts with 1,500 homes and 7,000 mature trees have been created. The Low Build alternative with intercity street corridors is now under way.

Berkeley is one of a few communities that promote the positive need for variety in urban life. It was perhaps the understanding of this vitalizing challenge that caused interurban residents in the 1960s to be more interested in the renewal of Berkeley than in the fresh building of modern garden communities.

Like other similar communities, Berkeley faces two principal challenges in the future: increasing population size and the attendant increase in land values. There is an optimum numerical size beyond which each further increment of inhabitants creates difficulties out of all proportion to the benefits. The creation of historic districts can help direct planning efforts and control growth to a certain degree. Past incremental growth areas are good candidates for districts: the block-by-block development, the shopping neighborhood, or the corridor avenue of the past created regions of congestion. Enter the earlier trolleys, Ashby Station, BART. As we look back, these areas now look small, pastoral, and ripe for historic districts, frozen in a time that none of us can really remember.

Limitations in size, density, and expansion area are absolutely necessary to effective social intercourse. They are therefore the most important instruments of rational economic and civil planning. The unwillingness to establish such limits in Berkeley has been due mainly to two facts. The first was the assumption that all upward changes in magnitude are signs of progress and automatically “good for business.” The second was the belief that such limitations are essentially arbitrary, reduce the opportunity to profit from congestion, and halt the inevitable course of change. In Berkeley, where there is a public demand for maintaining quality of life and a sense of place, these objections are groundless.

The increase in property values will eventually promote urban growth and paralyze those social functions you cherish. Without the creation of historic districts, unless strict planning and design guidelines are in place, higher property values will lead to demolition, inappropriate and out-of-scale additions, or large in-fill structures. Without the creation of historic districts and design guidelines to follow, BAHA will face battle after battle for each new development within your community. Don’t let Berkeley become another Laguna Beach, La Jolla, Pleasanton, Tracy, or Santa Cruz.

In summary, Berkeley is a related collection of primary groups and purposive associations unique in California. The first, like family and neighborhood, are common to all communities, while the second are especially characteristic of Berkeley’s city life. These areas form the nexus of a historic district to tell the continuing story of social culture and the group drama. For Berkeley, it’s important not to dwell too long on the physical attributes of individual structures but rather on the social activities within the context of these structures. You are not the forced Spanish Revival of Santa Barbara, the modern movement of Palm Springs, or the Mission Revival neighborhoods of Riverside.

Berkeley is the social creation of different opportunities, specialized interests, intensively trained aptitudes, discriminations and selections, all leading to the significant collection of Berkeley drama, told through its people. If you keep the scale, keep the communities and your spirit of culture, Berkeley will be Berkeley.


Post a Comment

<< Home